As I Was Saying is a forum for a variety of perspectives to foster faith-related conversations among our readers with the goal of mutual learning, even in disagreement. Apart from articles written by editorial staff, these perspectives do not necessarily reflect the views of The Banner.
Technology has a way of changing people, but I never realized how much our use of technology impacts faith. While writing a report for my church council about current trends and future plans, I stumbled upon something remarkable.
I knew how Christianity is declining in the USA. Both Gallup and Pew Research Center have been reporting this trend for some time now. Using their data, I discovered that the increase of religious “nones” is strongly correlated with use of new technologies. Both sources of religious decline strongly correlated with every metric of technology I could find: mobile cellular subscriptions, percentage using the internet, households with broadband, average daily time on digital media, and percentage on social media all strongly correlate with the rise of people saying they have no religion from both Gallup and Pew Research Center. The coefficients are all higher than 0.8, and many are over 0.9, which is almost perfect. Gallup’s numbers on declining church membership and people saying religion is “not very important” to their lives also yield equally strong correlations.
No, correlation does not imply causation, but it does imply connection. Statistician Allen Downey noticed the connection between religious decline and internet use back in 2014. Now with eight additional years of data, the connection of rising use of technology and rising population with no religion is more obvious.
No doubt there are multiple factors in any sociological change. Some would attribute religious decline to other trends, but the strong statistical connection between religious decline and various metrics of technology use is difficult to ignore.
Also astonishing was how the evangelism-focused denominations are no longer growing. Since the mid-1960s, the larger mainline denominations have declined, but now the Wesleyan Church, Church of the Nazarene, and Southern Baptist Convention are all trending downward. The Seventh-Day Adventist Church was growing at about 2% per year but since 2016 has ground to a halt. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints has long prided itself on being the fastest-growing church in the USA, but after years of slowing growth, 2020 was the first time they did not release their USA statistics.
The glow of a screen
Is the connection between technology and religious decline simply coincidental? Or is there something about the glow of a screen?
When I pick up my phone, I see colorful icons that each promise something new. A new text from a friend. A new email with a response to my question. A new notification of people liking my post. A new comment from someone admiring my photo. New excitement awaits every finger tap. This handheld computer is my connection to unending discoveries. Hours can go by as I satisfy my every curiosity on a device where I am in complete control. I can look up long-lost friends. I have an endless supply of laughter from standup comedians to cat videos on YouTube. Google produces results for every search. Endless entertainment awaits me on Netflix. Amazon will bring me anything I want with a couple taps on the screen. I find myself browsing aimlessly even after responding to a text.
The phone is strangely captivating and satisfying. I notice when I’m in the phone zone that my first reaction is annoyance if my wife initiates conversation or my cat wants to play. I used to be an avid reader, but now I gravitate to the 500-word essay online instead of the 500-page book. It’s almost as if the phone is scratching my itch for connecting and learning but in a swifter and safer fashion. The learning, interaction, and relationship I once sought from the real world are now satisfied digitally. The relational implications are numerous. Why meet face to face when you can keep up with others on your terms with Facebook? Why bother with needless pleasantries of a phone call when a quick text will get the needed information? Why be modest when Instagram showcases your most attractive pics? Why risk rejection when porn is so easily available? Why hold back your disgust when you can verbally destroy your enemy on Twitter?
The phone offers a spiritual experience. I am in complete control on this device that obeys my every swipe and tap. The phone never leaves me. It gives me eyes and ears all over the world. The phone leads me where I need to go with GPS, or gives me a ride on Uber. The phone provides groceries with Shipt and any meal I desire with Doordash. Google instantly knows the answer to my every question.
The phone experience has an addictive power of triggering the brain’s reward center so that we keep going back for more. People would rather lose a finger than their phone. People would prefer to be without their spouse or dog and go without sex, exercise and vacations than be without their phone.
This is a powerful device. Phones are seemingly scratching the itch that once was satisfied by communion with God and fellowship of believers. The heart’s need for God is being eclipsed by the stimulating glow of a small screen.
The sky is not falling
As a pastor, discovering the connection of technology and religious decline has given me a surprising peace. For the longest time I had trouble shaking a belief (against my better judgment) that if I was a good pastor, my church would grow. If I preached well enough and cared properly enough, people would come and stay. Seeing the power of new technologies might have put a final nail in the coffin of that stubborn thought. Stagnant or declining numbers are a sign of the times instead of a sign of personal failure. Even the giants of evangelism are affected. Forces much larger and stronger than me are at work. Even at optimal performance, one hour per week cannot compete with 4.8 hours per day. No pastor or church can stimulate the brain like the device in our hands. It’s no use to fight a losing battle of attracting attention, which is not the job of a pastor or church anyway. The call is to preach the word and show the love of Christ. It’s quite plain, but it meets the deepest needs of our souls in ways digital media never could.
Our need for God
None of this is to argue for going Amish and throwing out technology. Our phones bring us many blessings of communication that our workplaces, schools, families, and churches find useful. Nevertheless, the powerful allure of the phone and its connection to declining faith does give an urgency to our spiritual practices. If the phone has a quiet way of undermining faith, then doubling down on knowing Scripture and giving time to prayer as well as faithful involvement in the local church will be all the more important for keeping us spiritually grounded. Deliberately limiting our screen time is good advice from mainstream experts. My own plan for Lent is to remove all apps from my phone except talking and texting to test my mental dependence on what is becoming the most popular idol of our time. (Our heads even bow towards the phone as we use it.) An ongoing thought guiding my walk with Christ: “‘I have the right to do anything’—but I will not be mastered by anything” (1 Cor. 6:12). Technology in its proper place enhances our lives. Technology with no boundaries will take the place of God.
Many are spiritually lost in the wildernesses of digital stimulation. Mental illness and unhappiness were soaring even before the pandemic. It’s no coincidence that engaging with God through worship attendance and Bible reading are shown to bolster mental health. More than a stimulating experience, people need purpose and meaning in life. We need an answer to our sadness and a covering for our shame. We need a reason to persevere through difficulty and a hope beyond the grave.
Though obscured by glowing screens, the human need for God remains. Only Jesus Christ brings forgiveness of sins and eternal life. Only the church builds us up in this salvation.